Community says goodbye… again. But it’s a good episode!
Abed, we’re not formulas! If I had no self-awareness, I think I’d know.
When I covered the season premiere back in March, I labeled this new, Yahoo!-funded stretch of episodes the “Ghost Season” — the show had been given a new lease on life, reincarnated on the Internet (where it was most loved), but somewhat formless and seemingly without purpose. And for most of the season, it seemed like my initial feelings were right. While never unwatchable and rarely dull, Community wasn’t exactly throwing out any classics, either.
Most episodes were simply riffs on what worked well in the past. “Advanced Safety Features” was an escalation of Season 3’s Subway-themed episode. “Grifting 101” was a retread of “Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design” (my personal favorite episode, ever) — though Matt Berry was terrifically funny as its guest star. We had our token bottle/secret-spilling episode (“Basic RV Repair and Palmistry”), round 3 of paintball (“Modern Espionage”), even Abed’s third documentary (“Wedding Videography”) — and those were three episodes in a row! Where were the original ideas?
Fortunately, Community has always (or almost, give or take a Season 4) had two critical things in its corner — the gonzo imagination of Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, and the dedication of its cast. And like he showed with Jonathan Banks (and, to a lesser extent, John Oliver) last year, Harmon has a unique ability to integrate new characters without more than a momentary hiccup. Keith David’s Elroy caught fire right away, thanks in part to David’s reliably off-kilter line readings (his finest moment came in “Wedding Videography,” with the running gag about his tireless complimenting of white people), but he was fully-formed right out of the box.
Paget Brewster, meanwhile, needed a few episodes to get her sea legs (and for the writers to figure her out), but became indispensable by season’s end. Unlike the rest of the Save Greendale Committee, who let their freak flags fly from the get-go, Brewster’s Frankie was a woman who had masqueraded as “normal” her entire life, and only slowly embraced her opportunity to be weird. Her dry humor and detached personality was a great counterpoint to the broad (Chang), the bubbly (Annie), and the cynical (Jeff).
And though I docked many episodes points for repeating what the show had done before, the final three — “Wedding,” “Espionage”, and the finale — found Community hitting another gear. It was fun at Garrett’s wedding to see the group deal with how they can at times be truly awful (which was itself a callback to “Basic Lupine Urology”), but it was handled and resolved in an organic way. And “Modern Espionage” found yet another spin to put on the Apocalyptic Greendale story, not only sending up spy films but giving a loving nod to the Russo brothers’ (frequent Community directors in its early years) Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Dean’s elevator takedown wasn’t just an episode highlight, but a season highlight.
The most consistent element throughout this strange season, surprisingly, were the bizarre tags that capped off each episode. They were usually memorable back when the show was on NBC (that’s where “Troy and Abed in the Morning!” was birthed, after all), but thanks to the elastic run times and increased freedom that Yahoo! provided (two f-bombs this week!), here they just kept getting longer and stranger, tapping into a reservoir of absurdist humor that even peak “original recipe” Community couldn’t approach. Portuguese Gremlins, a grieving father with a lawn-sized wristwatch, a rambling pro-incest(?!) talking head with one of the show’s writers — these were glimpses inside the warped mind of Dan Harmon, and what he would probably be doing if he wasn’t committed to trifling things like “continuity” and “narrative arcs.” But he saved the best for last with a fake ad for “Community: The Board Game,” an exercise in meta-humor that starts out “ha-ha” funny (to “win”, determine what plane of reality the game exists on!) and ends up pitch-black funny (capped off with sad sack voiceover from Harmon himself).
Once again, Community is facing the end of its existence, and in “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” it chooses to address it in the most head-on way possible. All through Season 6, Abed’s meta-perspective on his life as a television show had been pitched at higher and higher levels, to Jeff’s great annoyance and Frankie’s confusion. And he’s worried about what will happen next to the group, now that Greendale has been saved (again!): “What show peaked after Season 6?” Will they just keep trotting out the same formula, with diminishing returns? Then he gets the ball rolling on the episode’s clever conceit: each character “pitching” their ideas for “Season 7.”
Some of these ideas are cute, like the Dean’s, who brings back Shirley for a vaguely stereotypical team-up with Elroy; some are just bizarre, like whatever you call the CGI abomination that comes out of Chang’s head. (Frankie, on Britta’s “social issues” pitch: “I don’t even own a TV and I wouldn’t watch that.”) But as they go around the room, one thing becomes painfully clear — it’s Jeff, more than anyone else, who’s desperate to keep things status quo. When he set foot onto Greendale’s campus six years ago, he hoped it would only be for a short stint, and went out of his way to avoid emotional involvements. But now, he can’t bring himself to leave, and he can’t handle his friends leaving, either.
When the group asks Elroy, who’s off to consult with LinkedIn (“People use LinkedIn?”), whether he’ll be back next year, the response is a halting “I think so… probably… maybe?” This gets intentionally echoed later by Abed, who’s going to be a production assistant in L.A., and Annie, who just landed a sweet internship with the FBI. Jeff, in the face of this mass exodus (and not the show’s first), gets increasingly desperate — his imagined future involves all of his friends being replaced by Leonard, Garrett, Vicki, creepy Todd, and Seth Green — and his warm & fuzzy/save-the-day “But we could all be professors!” idea gets a general shrug from the group. Even more than it did in Season 3, or 5 (both potential series-enders scripted by Harmon), this one really feels like the end. Ironically, it’s two of the characters left with Jeff — Britta and Chang — whose actors already have pilot deals on other networks.
So any way you slice it, if Community were to return for a seventh season or the long prophesied #andamovie (which appears at the credits), it would be forced to reinvent itself all over again. If this was the end, it was a fine end. Jeff reaches an emotional milestone with Annie, who lets him kiss her so he “doesn’t regret it forever,” and with Abed, to whom he owes… well, basically everything. If he doesn’t let Abed follow him around in the pilot, there’s no study group, and Jeff never grows as a human being. Or as a Human Being.
Studios have a tendency to “milk their properties dry,” as Abed puts it, but a show is at its best when it’s secure in its identity, not “pushing an agenda or trying to defeat other TV.” It’s a comfort, and sometimes there are bumps in the road, but the warmth and the relationships are what keep people coming back. And when you take the macro view on Community, it lived up to that standard.
Also, now we know that the “Ass Crack Bandit” was Annie all along, so don’t say it never answered any of its mysteries.
Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: B